Character education helps students know, care about, and act on core ethical values such as fairness, honesty, compassion, responsibility, and respect for self and others. Although there is no single formula for effective character education, the Character Education Partnership (CEP), a nonprofit coalition committed to fostering teaching and modeling positive character traits in schools, developed the Eleven Principles of Effective Character Education (Lickona, Schaps, & Lewis, 2003). These principles, cited below, serve as criteria that schools can use to plan an effective character-education initiative and evaluate character-education programs, books, and curricula.
1. Promotes core ethical values as the basis of good character
In Second Step lessons, students study and discuss core ethical values such as fairness, honesty, compassion, responsibility, respect, and self-discipline. When a school chooses to implement this program schoolwide, it is making a commitment to character education. The curriculum's foundation rests on three essential social competencies: empathy, impulse control and problem solving, and anger management. The lessons provide opportunities for students to develop core values through developmentally appropriate modeling, reinforcement, and practice.
2. Defines "character" comprehensively to include thinking, feeling, and behavior
The Second Step curriculum helps develop students’ critical thinking, emotional intelligence, and corresponding social skills, thus addressing the "head, heart, and hand" of character development. Every Second Step lesson is built around a story depicting an everyday situation that students might encounter in their lives. Class discussion of stories is followed by teacher modeling of prosocial behavior and student skill practice. Students learn empathy skills, such as caring and helping behaviors; communication skills, such as active listening; social problem-solving skills; and skills for managing and communicating emotions.
Additionally, students learn to think rationally to handle everyday conflicts and problems, developing a respect for others’ perspectives and ideas in the process. The problem-solving model teaches students to evaluate solutions based on safety, fairness, others' feelings, and workability. All of these skills combined help students understand, value, and act on core ethical values.
3. Uses a comprehensive, intentional, proactive, and effective approach to character development
The Second Step program is designed for schoolwide implementation. It provides schools with the tools they need to be intentional and proactive in promoting core ethical values. The Administrator's Guide includes models for building an implementation support team, providing staff training, familiarizing families with the program, and evaluating progress. The Teaching Guide supports teachers in creating respectful, accepting, and caring classrooms and modeling and reinforcing prosocial skills throughout the day.
Second Step lessons are based on extensive research about social development and aggression prevention. Second Step skills are also important in preventing other risky behaviors, such as substance abuse. Studies by several research teams demonstrate the effectiveness of the Second Step program with students from a variety of age groups, socioeconomic and racial backgrounds, and geographic settings. This research has linked the Second Step program to student improvements in social-emotional knowledge and skills, prosocial attitudes, and behavior.
4. Creates a caring school community
The Second Step program is based on a foundation of empathy as the motivator for resolving conflict and managing anger. Through adult modeling and schoolwide use of a common language, schools can create a culture characterized by an understanding of and concern for others.
The Second Step Teaching Guide supports teachers in creating warm, positive classroom climates by fostering personal connections, using reflective listening, modeling prosocial behaviors, and designing a welcoming space.
5. Provides students with opportunities for moral action
Second Step lessons are structured around stories that set up the concepts and skills to be explored in the program. During discussion, students use problem-solving models to brainstorm solutions and evaluate them based on safety, fairness, others' feelings, and workability. Students in first through fifth grades work together to break down a chosen solution into three to five small steps that become a basis for skill practice and are used as a guideline for giving peer feedback.
Role-plays, based on real-life scenarios, provide students with opportunities to apply concepts and practice moral actions, such as recognizing others’ rights, offering a fair solution to a problem, and inviting others to join a game. The transfer-of-learning model prompts students to think about when they might use their skills in real-life challenges in the classroom, at lunch, on the playground, on the bus, and at home, and to reflect on their skill use at the end of the day.
6. Includes a meaningful and challenging academic curriculum that respects all learners, develops their character, and helps them to succeed
The Second Step curriculum uses active, engaging teaching and learning strategies, including photo-lesson cards, group discussion, role-plays, hands-on activities, songs and puppets (preschool/kindergarten), video vignettes (grades 1–5), and posters, to help meet the needs of a diverse student population.
The curriculum encourages a classroom culture of mutual care and respect where children's opinions are valued and their feelings understood. Teachers are coached to use nonjudgmental responses to student answers during discussions.
In addition, lesson content and learning strategies offer strong support for academics. Lessons are centered around a story, supporting the development of language arts competencies in story interpretation, speaking, and listening. Problem solving, as reflected in the Second Step problem-solving model, is a core part of thinking and reasoning skills that underlie all academic areas (math, science, history, and so on).
Additional activities provide suggestions for integrating concepts and skills into other academic areas, such as math, social studies, and art.
7. Strives to foster students’ self-motivation
Empathy training in the Second Step program provides students with motivation and reasoning to solve social problems and manage anger so that others are not hurt by impulsive behaviors.
Transfer-of-learning tools and strategies—such as Second Step Hearts and reflection on skill use through Remember the Day—help children learn the consequences of their behavior, develop positive values, and learn to regulate their behavior in accordance with these values. They also help focus children’s attention on the positive impact they can have on other children. The problem-solving steps provide a model for considering the rights and needs of self and others. All of these strategies help children act from internal rather than external motivations.
Adults are trained to draw children's attention to the positive results of their prosocial behaviors, including small efforts made by children with behavioral challenges, thus fostering the development of children's intrinsic motivation.
Adults are trained to respond with affirmation when students report bullying in order to acknowledge students' efforts to create a safe, caring, respectful school.
8. Engages the school staff as a learning and moral community that shares responsibility for character education and attempts to adhere to the same core values that guide the education of students
The Second Step Administrator’s Guide provides a framework for involving all adults in creating a positive school community. This framework helps schools establish need and secure buy-in, create an implementation support team, provide staff training, engage parents, evaluate implementation, maintain long-term commitment, and celebrate success—all of which help staff take ownership of character education efforts.
Display of Second Step calming-down, problem-solving, and anger-management posters in the halls, lunchroom, library, gym, and near the playground supports staff in helping students apply skills.
In addition to school-facilitated staff trainings that provide the consistency that is critical to truly affect a school's social climate, school staff can participate in on-site and regional trainings offered by Committee for Children.
9. Fosters shared moral leadership and long-range support of the character education initiative
Second Step implementation is designed to start with the key decision maker, such as the principal or district administrator. His or her sponsorship communicates commitment to the program and demonstrates critical leadership.
An integral part of implementation is the Second Step support team. This group, which might include the principal, teachers, counselors, and parent representatives, works together to keep the emphasis on quality implementation. The support team assumes leadership in managing logistics and providing resources and ongoing support to all staff who interact with children.
10. Engages families and community members as partners in the character-building effort
The Second Step program supports schools in their efforts to involve and inform parents. Program kits for preschool/kindergarten through grade 5 contain take-home letters and a 28-minute Family Overview Video. The letters keep parents informed of the social skills their children are learning and offer tips for supporting these skills at home. The video provides an overview of the curriculum and may be checked out to families or used at a family-night presentation. Families keep a copy of a reproducible handout highlighting information from the video.
Committee for Children also offers the Second Step Family Guide, an in-depth six-session series that introduces parents of children from preschool and kindergarten through grade 5 to the same skills their children learn at school.
11. Evaluates the character of the school, the school staff's functioning as character educators, and the extent to which students manifest good character
The Second Step program includes tools to help schools assess program planning and training, lesson implementation, and schoolwide support, as well as teacher support of student skills and transfer of learning.
The Preschool/Kindergarten–Grade 5 Administrator’s Guide includes information about conducting needs assessment, process evaluation, and outcome evaluation in addition to data collection, analysis, and interpretation procedures.
Lickona, T., Schaps, E., & Lewis, C. (1995). Eleven principles of effective character education. Washington, DC: Character Education Partnership.